By Ryan English, April 2014
The volume of information you have to process in PA school is truly awesome. Studying efficiently is the only way you’ll survive. The best way to study is the way that works for you. Everyone has different techniques and tricks that work for them. Try a few things, pick some that work, and don’t get too distracted with the methods. It took me two weeks before I really felt comfortable with my strategy. Here’s 5 tips and tools I use:
1. Learn and explain, don’t memorize – memorizing rarely helps, because you rarely need to know random facts. You need to know how things integrate information and see the whole picture. Interact with the material in a few ways (notes, book, power point slides, etc) and then try to explain what is happening at each step and why.
2. Make stories, create cases – Our brains are wired to remember stories. You’ll remember what that protein does if you make a story about it. Once you get down the basics, look online for cases involving whatever you learned. Just look at them, you don’t have to learn everything about the case, just see how that thing you learned fits into it. Now, make up questions or cases for your classmates to use.
3. Use Youtube/MOOC/interactive media – I’m a huge fan of these resources. I had trouble with a specific guest lecturer in a class, so I just watched a handful of videos on Youtube about the subject. If it didn’t understand something in the video, I’d pause it, open a new browser tab, and look up that part. If the video started covering something really basic, I would skip ahead. In half the time I had learned the material because I could engage it at my speed. There are numerous interactive quizzes and tests online, as well as full courses you can access for deeper explanations.
4. Hold off on groups until you’re ready – Group studying is the best studying. I learn best in groups, and I feel more pressure to get it right in a group that on my own. My classmates always have different details that I missed, and I often can frame a question in a way they didn’t anticipate. All of that is worthless if I don’t prepare the material ahead of time. I need to have done all I can to get the ideas in my head before showing up for group time. That way, we all work on fine tuning our understanding, not hammering out basics.
5. Prepare for class – Do not try to learn everything before going to class. You don’t know what the professor will emphasize and what will be tossed out. Skimming a chapter and pre-reading your power point slides are worth your time. Before class, look over the material casually. Don’t make notes or try to commit anything to memory, just look for word and ideas that keep coming up. If you don’t recognize one of those repeated elements, look it up. When you get to class, you’ll be able to pay attention to the professor. Your brain will be able to relax and think as opposed to processing new words, concepts, and details all at once.
6. Use Technology – My class uses dropbox to share reference documents, large PDF files, and student made practice questions. We use Google Drive to work on spreadsheets for pharmacology (among other classes) so we can live edit the grid together, even if we’re at home. Many people use OneNote to keep all their notes in one organized place that automatically backs up to a cloud server. Technology has become vastly integrated into learning, so make sure you take advantage of these and other tools.
About the Author: Ryan English is pursuing a graduate degree in physician assistant studies.